John C. Kirk (johnckirk) wrote,
John C. Kirk

Bikely woes

As I've mentioned before, my big event this year is cycling from Land's End to John O'Groats. I've been planning this for several months, and I've used Bikely to map out my route:

The principle is good, since it's a high-tech equivalent to scribbling on paper maps. One advantage is that I can share the route with other people, but my main goal at the moment is just to work out how far I'm actually cycling each day, so that I don't overcommit myself. Unfortunately, I've had some trouble with it, and I'm now at the point of abandoning it altogether.

Their website is basically a front-end to Google maps, so the route that they store is just a wonky line. It's a free service, so maybe I shouldn't complain about it; on the other hand, they display adverts, so I assume that they are running the website at a profit. They've made some odd choices with their user interface, and I think there are general lessons here that can apply to other sites.

There are basically two ways to draw a route. One method is to start at the beginning and work sequentially through to the other end. You keep clicking as you move towards your destination, then the website will autodraw a route to reach each new point. There's an option to auto-follow the road, although that's less useful if you want to take off-road routes, e.g. cycling (legally) along a canal path. This also means that it comes up with some odd suggestions, e.g. following motorways! Since the website is specifically aimed at cyclists rather than car drivers, this seems like a slight oversight.

The second method is to specify every point yourself, which is basically what I'm doing. I knew where I'd start and finish, so I started out with those points, and I've been filling in the gaps in between ever since. I've added stops along the way (e.g. the YHAs where I'm staying), so I then had a crude zig-zag route, and I've kept going back to add more detail. There's a judgement call as to how detailed you get, and I tend to be a bit obsessive about it. However, following all the curves of a road can have a cumulative effect on distance. If I expected to drive 70 miles, and actually drove 90 miles, that wouldn't be a major problem. However, if the same thing happens when I'm cycling then it will be much more significant.

Google Maps has two options: Map and Satellite. Sometimes they don't quite match, which can lead to some odd quirks. For instance, I'll be following a canal path through Thornton-in-Craven (near the Yorkshire Dales). Here's my route in map view:

Map view

According to that, I'll be swimming rather than cycling! However, here's the same route in satellite view:

Satellite view

That shows that I'm following the path, although I've cut a few corners; I'll come back to that later. In fairness, this is Google's mistake rather than Bikely's; on the other hand, they chose to rely on Google, rather than using (for instance) Ordnance Survey maps.

When I'm drawing the route, the toolbar looks like this:


Going from left to right, here's what each button means:
* "Start drawing" - this swaps between the two methods that I mentioned above, i.e. auto-draw vs picking each point yourself.
* "Save".
* "Delete current point".
* "Delete all points".
* "Insert a point before the current point".
* "Insert a point after the current point".

The three that I use the most are "Delete current point" and the two "Insert" buttons. Before and after are relative to the start of the route, so I sometimes click the wrong one by mistake, e.g. if I'm working backwards towards the start. "Save" is useful, and I can see why some people might want to toggle back and forth between drawing modes.

However, one of those buttons is not like the others. "Delete all points" means "Nuke everything I've done so far", and it seems astoundingly unlikely that anyone would want to do this on a regular basis. It might be a useful option to have available, but it belongs in a menu, not on the toolbar! Thankfully they do at least ask you whether you're sure before they destroy everything, because I've clicked that button by mistake several times.

If you're ever choosing what belongs on a toolbar, please try to do some research. When Microsoft converted the Office toolbar into the ribbon, they based this on real-world data rather than guesswork. There's an interesting blog post about it here (part of a series). You'll see that I won 2nd prize in his contest, although I just get bragging rights rather than anything more tangible.

Saving the route is important. At this point, it's entirely possible that I've spent more time fiddling with their website than I'll actually spend in the saddle! If you make changes, they're just stored in your computer's memory until you copy them back to the website. There's no autosave option, so you have to click the button periodically. Unfortunately it takes about 15 seconds to save, which is a bit disruptive. This is the downside to running things "in the cloud" rather than using a desktop client. If you turn off your computer before you save, you'll lose all your changes; that's pretty obvious. However, if you accidentally navigate to a different webpage then you'll also lose any unsaved changes.

I mentioned menus, and they flip down if you hover over them. Unfortunately, they cover up the toolbar buttons in the process:


So, if you move the mouse past the menu on your way to the toolbar, you will find that you actually click a menu option instead of the toolbar button that you were aiming for. In particular, the "Copy this route" option will take you to a new webpage (same tab/window), with an unsaved route that's a copy of your last saved version. So, if you were intending to add a new point then hey, April Fool! You've just lost an hour of work.

Another problem I've seen is that the Save button doesn't always work. Sometimes it displays an error message instead, which basically says "Try again later". Again, if you have unsaved changes then your option are a bit limited. I've wound up leaving my PC running all night because shutting down would lose work.

Having said all that, it mostly comes down to training. If I'm careful what I click, and save frequently, I should be ok. Or so I thought. I've now discovered that their website is flat out lying to me, claiming to save but silently discarding my changes. I've recorded a video to prove this (no audio):

I've loaded up the map, then zoomed in to Ottery St Mary. At 26 seconds, you can see that I'm cutting a corner on the B3174, so I add a new point to follow the road. I then click the Save button, and I move the mouse over to the whirling progress icon (just above the Groupon advert). At 49 seconds, it announces that "Your route has been saved." So, I hop up to the address bar and press Enter to reload the page. I then zoom back in to Ottery St Mary, and see that my new point has disappeared.

In this case it's just a trivial example, but I discovered this when I was going through the map and thinking "I'm sure I corrected that already!" It was hard to be certain, since the aforementioned glitches have forced me to repeat quite a bit of work, but I've now proved it.

So, that's it - I'm done with Bikely. (I'll send them an email and point them at this blog post and/or YouTube video so that they know why.) I've exported my data to a gpx file, and I'll try putting that into another website, e.g. Bike Route Toaster. Before I do, though, any tips on particularly good/bad sites?
Tags: cycling, lejog, maps, rant, ui

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